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Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Persecuted

~Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account… for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you~

The final two beatitudes roll together and are usually treated together. In general, talk of “the persecuted,” would have reminded Jesus’ Jewish listeners not just of “the prophets who were before you,” but also of the period of intense persecution the Jewish people had not long ago undergone. Only a few generations before Jesus arrived on the scene, the Israelites were ruled by the Seleucid Empire, who had initiated a gruesome policy of anti-Jewish persecution. Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king, insisted the Israelites worship his Hellenistic pagan religion. He wanted them to worship the Greek pantheon. The Temple was ransacked and an altar to Zeus was set up. Observation of the Sabbath was no longer permitted. Possessing a copy of the Hebrew scriptures or having one’s child circumcised made one a criminal. In the worst cases, failure to adhere to Antiochus’ paganism could make one liable to death. None of this was ancient history for Jesus’ listeners. This would have been their grandparents’ generation. The memory was fresh. And it was a memory, we’re told, of when “the land shook for its inhabitants” (1 Macc 1:28).

Above all, though, when Jesus spoke of those who “revile you and persecute you,” their memory would have been drawn to the martyrs of this period. Most famous was the account of seven brothers and their mother who were tortured and killed for refusing to eat pork (2 Macc 7). Each was slowly cut limb from limb and placed into a frying pan while their remaining family looked on. “The smoke from the pan spread widely” (2 Macc 7:5). 

This all took on a renewed meaning for the first Christians, those standing by as Jesus preached the beatitudes. Jesus later told those disciples that, just like the seven brothers and their mother, they too will be “sent like sheep in the midst of wolves.” Indeed, he insisted that they “will be hated because of [his] name,” (Mt 10:16, 22). Certainly this came to pass. 11 of the 12 apostles were martyred somewhere or another across the ancient world. Mark had a rope thrown around his neck and was dragged through the streets of Alexandria. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome. In total, across the next 200 or so years, some 60,000 Christians were killed by the Roman empire, often in stadiums for entertainment.

These wounds cut deep into Jewish and Christian history. The harsh experience of persecution marks their imagination. But there is something very strange about the Jewish-Christian understanding of all this. Jesus puts his finger directly on it: “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Blessed. It is the same strange paradox that marks all of the beatitudes. How can we call these tortured and murdered people blessed? How is it that, on his way to be martyred in Rome’s Circus Maximus, Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter insisting that the Christians there avoid intervening to save his life: “The only thing I ask of you is to allow me to offer the libation of my blood to God. I am the wheat of the Lord; may I be ground by the teeth of the beasts to become the immaculate bread of Christ.” How does suffering persecution ― even death ― constitute blessing, something, as Ignatius frames it, to be desired?

Let’s think about it this way: In his first beatitude, Jesus calls the “poor in spirit” blessed. If you think about it, when we possess none of this world’s joys, we must turn to the next world. We must turn to God. In a paradoxical way, it is then ― completely void of this world’s goods ― that we are most blessed. We are now open to receiving the blessings of God. We can finally hear God’s voice which, more often than not, is muted in our lives by our attachment to this world’s goods. Jesus says it is then that we inherit “the kingdom of heaven.” The interesting thing is that Jesus says the exact same thing in this beatitude ― the final beatitude. He similarly insists of the persecuted that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

It is the exact same principle. Jesus is insisting upon the exact same idea, but in a more final way. When the Christian and Jewish martyrs were faced with a decision between death but faithfulness to God or a return to life and the goods of this world, they chose “the kingdom of heaven.” Martyrdom is the final, grand witness to the fact that it is better to have literally nothing, not even life, than it is to betray God.  

One of those seven Jewish brothers was offered riches and a position of envy in the kingdom. He was offered every earthly blessing. He just needed to give up his Jewishness. His mother’s response is interesting. It’s not what you might expect. She leans over and whispers in her son’s ear: “I have reared you, brought you up, and taken care of you.” And then she says this: “Look at the heavens and the earth. See everything. Recognize that God did not make them out of things that already existed. So too you came into being” (2 Macc 7:27-28). Here’s what we must see: she reminds him in this moment of who God is. She reminds him that, as much as she is his earthly, biological mother ― the one who has helped to provide for his earthly goods ― God is the one who made him out of nothing. God is the one to whom he owes everything. “Do not fear this butcher,” she concludes. “Accept death” (2 Macc 7:29). Accept that the God who made you is worth giving everything up for, even your earthly life.

It is a remarkable, gritty, even gruesome level of faith. There is a reason the Church honors the martyrs with a special reverence. It is the same reason Jesus insists that those with this kind of faith, along with the “poor in spirit,” are already inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Peacemakers

*We continue our reflections on the beatitudes of Jesus

~Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God~

The peacemakers constitute the seventh beatitude. The number seven is not insignificant. The Jewish tradition is enormously preoccupied with numbers. No number is without consequence, especially the number seven. God himself seemed to really like it. He ordered Noah to bring seven pairs of every clean animal onto the ark (Gen 7:2). The priests were to sprinkle blood seven times before him for the sacrifices (Lev 4:6). That one kid sneezed seven times before rising from the dead (2 Kings 4:35 ― this is really in the text!). The list goes on. Most important for our purposes, though, is that there were seven days of creation in the book of Genesis. Believe it or not, there is a way of interpreting Jesus’s seventh beatitude as a subtle reference to the creation of the world. It turns around the idea of “peace” ― “blessed are the ‘peacemakers.’”

The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. What the Jewish people have in mind when they talk about peace or shalom is much more than the absence of war. Neither is shalom the achievement of some undisturbed repose or finding isolation from the restlessness of the world. In fact, to discover what shalom means, one must look at the story of creation. In Genesis, God creates the world across six days, steadily crafting and populating the cosmos. There is Day and there is Night. There is sky, and water, and land. Trees and fruits. “Swarms of living creatures.” And so on and so forth all the way up to human beings. But we should notice that, in the text, after each day of God’s creative acts, God looked out at what he’d made and “saw that it was good” (Gen 1:4, etc.). In the beginning, a cosmic unity flowed through and marked the creation. All was in balance. All was rightly ordered. All was good. 

This is shalom. This is what the Jewish-Christian tradition means by “peace” ― that original harmony in the Garden of Eden. Shalom means humanity at peace with the earth and its creatures, with God, and even with itself. It means, again, not just a lack of tension or war ― this is not just a time, for instance, when the animals didn’t attack each other ― but also a real positive communion and unity between God, humanity, and creation. It is, as the prophet Isaiah put it, a peace where “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat … and a little child shall lead them…. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Is 11:6, 9).

Most beautiful of all, I think, is what happens on the seventh day: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested” (Gen 2:1-2). In the Jewish mind, it’s not that, on the seventh day, worn out from his efforts, God did nothing. On the contrary, God participated in the shalom by simply being with us in it. On the seventh day, God enjoyed the harmony of shalom. This is why “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested” (Gen 2:3).

This is, of course, where we get the tradition of the Sabbath ― the day of rest, the day of shalom. Indeed, the great hope of Judaism and Christianity is that all days could someday be the Sabbath, could be shalom. To this day, upon seeing each other, the Jewish greeting is “shalom aleichem” ― “peace be with you.” The peace and shalom of the Garden be with you.

This is precisely the reason Jesus makes the peacemakers his seventh beatitude. This was, again, no coincidence for a Jewish rabbi. But what about the second half of this beatitude? Why does Jesus say the peacemakers will be called “sons of God”? Well this, too, has something to do with Genesis and the creation story.

In that same narrative we read about how Adam and Eve ― how all human beings ― are created “in God’s own image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). It’s an odd phrase ― “image and likeness” ― but what it means becomes clear a few chapters later. In chapter 5, Adam and Eve have their third son. The text says that, “Adam became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Gen 5:3). What it means, then, to be made “in the image and likeness” of something is to be a son or to be a daughter. You and I ― made in God’s image and likeness ― are sons and daughters of God, in the same way Seth is a son of Adam and a son of Eve. 

Let’s put it all together, then. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called sons of God.” This is the seventh beatitude ― the one that points us back to creation, to the Garden. For Jesus, the ones who most embody their calling as sons and daughters of God ― the calling instilled in us in our creation ― are those who seek peace. For Jesus, the ones who most embody what it means to be a son or a daughter of God ― the ones who live according to the beatitudes ― are those who seek to spread the shalom of the Garden, those who seek that mountain where “none shall hurt or destroy,” even if they’ll only finally arrive in the world to come. This is the heart of Christian peace and Christian peacemaking. 

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, July 17, 2020

The Pure in Heart

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus

~Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God~

Modern people have a tendency, when we read Jesus here ― “blessed are the pure in heart” ― to assume he is talking about sexuality. “Blessed are those who are chaste, who keep themselves free from lust.” Purity here, we often think, means “sexual purity.” Our culture is hyper-sexualized and so we assume our preoccupations were Jesus’s preoccupations. But they were not. Certainly the Christian tradition has lots to say about sexual morality. But the Church Fathers did not interpret this beatitude as a teaching on sexual morality. This isn’t what Jesus was doing here. 

So what was Jesus up to? What would Jesus’s listeners have understood by this beatitude? As a matter of fact, this beatitude is remarkably Jewish. Indeed, an ancient Jew would have understood Jesus’s words here in a radically different way from most contemporary Christians. 

We should start by looking at the promise Jesus makes. He says the pure in heart will “see God.” For the Jews, there is only one way to “see God.” One sees God at the Temple in Jerusalem. 

In the Old Testament, God’s literal presence hovered over the Ark of the Covenant. As the Ark travelled with the Israelites through the desert, the presence of God could be seen as a column of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22). When the Israelites encamped each night, they placed a tent around the Ark called the “Tent of Meeting,” because that was the place where God and humanity had “met.” When the Israelites made Jerusalem their capital and organized their lives around the Temple, they placed the Ark of the Covenant ― with God’s presence above it ― right in the Temple’s center. By Jesus’s time, the Ark of the Covenant had sadly disappeared from the Temple. But the Jewish mind would still have gone to the Temple when one talked about “seeing God.”

More than that, when Jesus says, “blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God,” he is actually alluding to an Old Testament passage from the psalms that most Jews would have picked up on straight away. The passage is actually a reference to everything we have been describing so far. It’s a reference to God’s presence in the Temple and the human desire to behold him there. The Temple was built on top of a hill (Mount Zion), and so the psalmist sings: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4).

In ancient Israel, in order to participate in Temple worship, one needed to be ritually pure. This is partly why the text says only someone with “clean hands” can stand in the holy place. But they must also have a “pure heart.” And this is precisely what Jesus calls to mind for his Jewish listeners ― it is the “pure in heart” who will see God.

But there is something different about Jesus’s beatitude. He goes beyond the psalm. Remember, the Ark of the Covenant is not present in the Temple anymore. The presence of God is not in “the holy place” as it once was. So where can someone go if they want to see God? In short, to Jesus. In the Old Testament, God was present in the Temple over the Ark of the Covenant. Now, God is present in the person of Jesus himself.

In the Old Testament, one needed a certain kind of purity ― clean hands and a pure heart ― to enter the Temple and meet God. Jesus seemed, throughout his ministry, to downplay ritual purity rites like washing. But one still needs to be pure to meet God, Jesus says. Only those with a heart singly devoted can see God. Only those with a heart not muddied up with devotion to other gods ― money, ideologies, etc. ― can finally access the “holy place” and “see God.” And, now, what a pure heart gives one access to is so much greater than the Temple. It gives one access not to a pillar of fire or a column of smoke, but to Jesus. It gives one access to the personal presence of God. Not just now, but forever.

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Mercy and the Merciful

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy~

It is interesting that, at the heart of Jesus’s teaching about mercy, is his insistence upon the way in which God’s mercy works together with human mercy. “Forgive us our trespasses,” he teaches us to ask God, “as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12). The two types of mercy cannot be isolated from each other.

When he gives the beatitudes in Luke’s gospel, Jesus, a moment later, makes this same point: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6:37). We’re familiar with this language. These are old hat Jesus quotes, really. Everybody knows them. We think we know what Jesus means. “Don’t judge or we’ll be judged. Right. What’s next?”

But what Jesus said next – though it’s a little more cryptic for modern readers – is actually where things get most interesting. Indeed, Jesus said far more than “don’t judge or you’ll be judged.” In fact, he provided a vivid visual metaphor of what Christian mercy should look like: “Give,” Jesus immediately went on to say, “and it will be given to you. A good measure, one pressed down, shaken up and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38). What does all this mean exactly? What is all this about pressing down and shaking up? About stuff running over and being poured into one’s lap? To an ancient Palestinian, all of this would have made sense. But to us, it sounds odd, and we usually just skip it and quote the old hat stuff.

So what is Jesus talking about? And how does this image reveal something important about the nature of mercy, about not judging others? The “good measure” that Jesus mentions was a common image for a basket of grain in the ancient world. He’s referring to a good measure of grain. Indeed, he’s referring to a measure so generous it’s been “pressed down.” That is, one that’s been sat upon, stomped upon, and crammed with all one’s might into the bottom of the basket in order to make room for more. He’s referring, too, to a measure of grain that’s been “shaken up.” That is, a measure that’s been stirred up and rattled around to make the grains settle so that even more can be pressed down upon the top. This is also the way my mother packs a cooler – “there just must be more room!” – as she rattles the thing around with a wild look in her eye. Even beyond that, Jesus says this measure of grain is “running over” and, if you were to put it in someone’s lap, it would pour all over them.

The point is this: This is the image Jesus uses to depict how generous Christians should be with their mercy. This is what your mercy should look like. Our mercy is usually heavily qualified: “I will forgive him if he asks my forgiveness. I will forgive her, if she makes some changes. I won’t judge them, lest I be judged.” Jesus says you owe people quite a bit more than that. We should be like my mother with a cooler, manhandling the thing in order to fit just one more soda. That is how we should be when we interpret the lives of other people, especially the people we think the least of. We should be manhandling the portion of mercy we mete out in order to offer more: “There just must be more I can give them. There just must be a reason they think and act this way.” Christians should be ruthless with their mercy.

Consider the people who have disappointed you the most. If the circumstances of your life had been different, might you think the same way they think? Are you in any way responsible for the way they act? Don’t wait for them to shape up or ask for your forgiveness. Shake up the barrel. Press down the grain. Press as hard as you can. Fill it up with mercy and let it run over. And when you pour it all out for someone, see that it spills all over their lap. That is how they will be transformed. And it just so happens that “the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38).

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

The Hungry and the Thirsty

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Fritz Eichenberg (1952) for The Catholic Worker Newspaper
*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied~

One of the interesting things about this beatitude is the metaphor Jesus uses to describe those who seek righteousness. He says they hunger and thirst for it. It is not random. In the Old Testament, eating and drinking were common metaphors for the righteous person’s experience of God. Isaiah the Prophet preached: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; he who has no money, come, buy and eat.” There is a bread which truly satisfies, Isaiah insisted. “Hearken diligently to [the Lord], and eat what is good, delight yourselves in fatness” (Is 55:1-2). 

Jesus is picking up this same theme in Jewish preaching. In John’s gospel, he tells a Samaritan woman pulling water up from a well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst” (Jn 4:13-14). Two chapters later ― and most dramatically of all ― Jesus tells the crowds “not to labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:27). Jesus reminds them that “your fathers ate manna in the desert, and died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:49-50). Jesus finally told those crowds, “I am the living bread. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (Jn 6:51). 

There are just two realities Jesus explicitly identified himself with here on earth. “This is my body,” he said at the Last Supper, breaking bread and blessing it. “This is my blood,” he said with a chalice. “Take. Eat…. Drink of it” (Mt 26:26-28). Jesus placed himself inside the Jewish Passover ritual: The bread is me. The wine is me. That is the first time. The Eucharist. The Bread of Life. “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55).

The second time occurred just one chapter earlier. As he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world and what a good judgment would look like. Jesus said this: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mt 25:35). A bit of confusion makes sense. For future generations of Christians, Jesus would not be physically roaming the earth. “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee?” they would ask (Mt 25:37). The response is the second time Jesus identifies himself with something on the earth. “Truly I say to you, as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). [1]

In this, then, we can see Jesus’ preoccupation with another kind of “hungering and thirsting.” Normally, when we hear Jesus say “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we think he’s talking about those who have a strong desire to be good and live well. He is. But not only must we hunger and thirst to be virtuous ― to be prayerful, to forgive wrongs done to us, etc. But there are also those “least of these” who literally “hunger and thirst.” There are those who hunger and thirst in the streets. Those who literally have no food, no homes, no families. Blessed are those too, then, who hunger and thirst to see righteousness done for the “least of these.”

Catholics typically think that Jesus has met the world’s spiritual hunger and thirst by becoming what appears to be bread, by becoming the Bread of Life. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). We always remember the first time Jesus identified himself with some earthly reality. We always remember the Eucharist. We never remember the second time. We never remember that, when we feed the “least of these” Jesus says we “do it to [him].” We never remember the poor.

Taken together, both of Jesus’ presences ― in the Eucharist and in the poor ― open up the true heart of this beatitude. The Christian hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Better yet, the Christian hungers and thirsts for the Righteous One. The Christian finds him in the Eucharist. The Christian finds him in the poor, hungering and thirsting alongside them. In both of these breads, the Christian is satisfied. 

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnote:

[1] See the commentary on Matthew by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 839-840.

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Meek, Inheritors of the Earth


*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth~

The interesting thing about this beatitude is the promise Jesus makes to those who are meek. We know, for the most part, what it means to be meek. The meek person lives by a logic of gentleness. The meek person, no matter how serious the situation may be, never throws away their loving-kindness. [1] But Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the earth. What exactly does that mean? What are we saying when we say that the “people of the beatitudes” are the people who will become inheritors of the land?

Certainly Jesus’ promise has something to do with heaven. The meek, the gentle, are the kind of people who are inheritors of the “New Jerusalem.” But the Christian tradition has also insisted that, in this beatitude, Jesus is also talking about this world. There is a sense in which the meek are the true inheritors of this earth. What do we mean?

Let’s start by thinking of the opposite of meekness. I tend to think of the rise and fall of empires, of the coming and going of nations and dominions. There is, in the onward march of an invading army, the human attempt to possess the earth, to broaden the inheritance. This image of human strength ― to raise one’s flag over the earth ― stamps it with disharmony. In ancient times, most defeated populations were enslaved. Genghis Khan used to say that life’s greatest pleasure was in “vanquishing your enemies and robbing them of their wealth." When Caesar’s chariots pressed onward, he crushed and mangled the earth and its people. There was nothing gentle or meek about Caesar and his legions. 

Throughout history “Caesar” has always tried to dominate the land, to insist the land is really his dominion. But Caesars come and Caesars go. And that is precisely the point. The true inheritors of the earth ― the true possessors of that land ― are not the imperialists who’ve pillaged for it. In time, the empires have all fallen away. “The ones who remain,” Joseph Ratzinger once said, “are the simple, the humble, who cultivate the land and continue sowing and harvesting in the midst of sorrows and joys.” [2] The land does not belong to Caesar. The land does not belong to any person of power, no matter how much they say so. The land belongs to God. And that land is the inheritance, Jesus says, of the poor in spirit and of the meek. It is the inheritance of those who, at this moment, have been disinherited. Indeed, the story of a land is the story of its people ― the generations who’ve lived and worked upon it ― not the story of its conquerors and rulers.

It is no different today. I used to tell my students that, in spite of what might appear to be the case on the news, the real drama is not occurring out on the center stage of the world. The real drama is not occurring on your social media feeds. The real drama is happening in your heart. The world, right now, is going through an extraordinary time. It matters, of course, how world leaders react. You need to care about all that. But the highest drama of all is not how the Caesars will respond. The real question is this: how are you going to respond? To this virus? To this cultural moment’s questions about race? Are you becoming wiser? More just? More meek? Are we going to become people who truly see those around us who are hurting? Not just the ones on TV, five-hundred miles away, but are we going to see the people who are actually in our lives ― the ones we call friends and family ― and endure some harshness each day? Do you yet see that there are real people in your life in pain? Are these tumultuous days an invitation to see your poor-in-spirit a little better? An invitation to cultivate the small patch of your inheritance of earth? An invitation to be meek?

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnotes:
[1] See the reflections on "Holy Meekness" in Dietrich von Hildebrand's Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001), 407.
[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), 83.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Those Who Mourn

*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted~

We normally associate mourning with death: those who mourn, mourn their dead. We also associate Jesus’ beatitude ― “blessed are those who mourn” ― with death. “Blessed are those who mourn their dead. They shall be comforted. They shall experience the consolation of God. They shall see their loved ones again.” Something like that. This is not wrong. Jesus is, in part, talking about this kind of mourning. But he’s also talking about something much more fundamental. 

“Those who mourn” are not just those who have lost someone. In this case, those who mourn are those who look out at the world and grieve. Blessed are those who grieve for the world. “Woe to those who rest easy in Zion… who are not grieved over the ruin [of their brethren]” (Amos 6:1, 6). It is not a pleasant thing to say, but this world is a ruin ― not just today, in the midst of extraordinary turmoil, but all days. 

We live in a world scarred up by wounds and by pain. The scriptures call it a “valley of tears” (Ps 84:6). Everyday, we move among people who endure extraordinary suffering. Most of them hide it. But when our eyes pierce the fa├žade and see all this, Jesus calls it a blessing.

“Those who mourn” are those who see that the world is not as it should be and weep for it. They see and mourn for those this world has discarded ― the elderly, the aborted, the racially oppressed, the immigrant. “Those who mourn” are blessed precisely because they know this is not the inheritance God left for humanity, and that things will someday not be this way.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reformulates this beatitude from the other direction. “Woe to you that laugh now,” he says. “You shall mourn and weep” (Lk 6:25). What startling and harsh words! Nobody has them hanging above their mantle. The point is this: you don’t want to be totally at home in this world. This is a world that runs by the logic of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Deut 19:21). The cup of suffering runneth over here. If somehow you rest easy in this world, perfectly content as all manner of agonies and injustices stream by, then woe to you. Blessing comes, rather, in mourning and in lifting the burden from those this world has discarded.

One day, no one “shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain” (Is 11:9). One day, God will “wipe away every tear” (Rev 21:4). But that day has not yet come. And so Jesus says that the blessed ones are the ones who mourn, the ones who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But this is not the whole of the story. 

Jesus closes these very beatitudes by insisting his disciples also “rejoice and be glad” (Mt 5:12). It might be the case that the world has not yet been consummated, that there are one-thousand agonies at each moment. But, for the Christian, after Jesus has walked with us ― after God himself has mourned with us ― the whole story has been rewritten. Christians believe that, on account of Jesus, this heartbroken world “shall be comforted.” Even now, Jesus has left the aroma of redemption upon all things, especially upon our suffering, our mourning, and our weeping. [1] And so, for the Christian, there are so many more reasons for joy then there are for sadness. There is so much pain in the world, so much injustice. But the last word has been Jesus’ word. And so even if the Christian is never quite at home in this world, joy is nevertheless the decisive theme and rhythm of her life. [2] “Rejoice always!” Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 4:4). “Rejoice always!”

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~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Endnotes:
[1] See Luis Martinez, The Sanctifier (Boston: Pauline, 2003), 313-314.
[2] See Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2001), 464.